Walk of Fame polisher is the keeper of the stars
If anyone can restore Hollywood’s luster, John Peterson figures it’s him.
The one-legged man has spent 14 years polishing celebrities’ stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
With 2,412 of them along nearly three miles of sidewalk, it’s a full-time job.
“Chewing gum should be banned globally,” says the 61-year-old, scraping a dirty clump of the stuff off actress and singer Cass Daley’s star near Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. “It’s not recyclable, it’s not biodegradable, it’s not good.”
Once Daley’s star is gleaming, Peterson stows his bottle of Brasso metal polish and the paper towel into a plastic shopping bag. Hoisting himself up by his arms, he inches along on his knees to the next star, dragging the bag and his crutches along with him.
His next stop is 1940s-era character actor Gene Lockhart. Pulling out the towel and the polish, he swabs the movie-career emblem and sprays Windex over the star’s pink terrazzo surface to remove scuff marks.
Peterson’s work has given him a sidewalk-level perspective of Hollywood that few people have.
That has convinced him that the Metro Red Line subway, which some have blamed for causing the Walk of Fame’s terrazzo to crack and chip, is only partly at fault.
“It’s the soil here that causes it. It’s the same as Santa Monica’s — sandy,” Peterson asserts. “And I’m no engineer, but the added weight of some of the new buildings that are going in here may contribute to the sidewalk’s sinking.”
He’s off to George Sidney’s star next. A passerby asks who Sidney was, and Peterson has a quick answer.
“To me, he’s just another guy with a dirty star. You don’t recognize all these guys because a lot of them are producers and directors, behind the camera,” he says. In fact, Sidney was a producer and a director, whose projects included the “Our Gang” comedies, “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Viva Las Vegas.”
Peterson’s own background is television. He worked as a TV repairman until inexpensive transistors turned television sets into items that are not fixed but thrown away when they break.
His final repair job evaporated in late 1995, and he was homeless when he began polishing the stars along Vine Street as a way of earning tips from tourists.
His industriousness was noticed by Kerry Morrison, the executive director of a newly organized business improvement project, the Hollywood Entertainment District.
When the Entertainment District was expanded in 1999 to include the eastern end of the Walk of Fame, Morrison invited Peterson to apply for a job. He did, and now he is an employee of CleanStreet, a maintenance contractor hired by the improvement district’s main body, the Hollywood Property Owners Alliance.
Thirteen other CleanStreet workers power-wash the Walk of Fame and other Hollywood sidewalks, primarily at night to avoid the crowds of tourists.
Morrison said Peterson polishes each Walk of Fame star at least once a month. He averages about 110 a day.
“He hasn’t missed a day of work in the more than 10 years that he’s been with us,” said Morrison, adding that the job provides Peterson with “a living wage,” benefits and paid vacations. “I asked him if he would like a scooter, and he said no, that he had everything under control,” she said.
Peterson doesn’t talk much about his amputated right leg except to explain that the portion beneath the knee was removed because of a congenital disease.
The West Virginia native is quick with a quip when asked about other things, however.
“What brought me to Hollywood? A metallic blue 1972 Oldsmobile,” he says about moving here.
“My favorite star? It’s Guy Lombardo’s. It’s underneath a big overhang that keeps it dry when it rains and is shady in the summer,” he says. “This sidewalk gets up to 140 degrees on hot summer days.”
Peterson moves to the next star in the line, TV comic Ernie Kovacs’. He attacks it with Brasso. “People will come up and ask me where Marilyn Monroe is, and I tell them she’s interred at a cemetery over in Westwood,” he says.
Actually, he’s quick to add, Monroe’s star is in front of a McDonald’s. “It gets real dirty. It gets Big Mac-attacked, with ketchup and soda and everything else on it. I have to use glass cleaner on that one.”
Silent movie actress Mildred Harris’ star is next. Peterson explains that stars were made of bronze and copper when the Walk of Fame began 50 years ago. That surface turns dark if it’s not maintained, he said. More recent stars are made of a brass alloy and are more durable.
He’s polishing Ford’s emblem when visitor Dave Reeder, in town on business, stops and asks directions to Lucille Ball’s star. “I’ve always been a fan of hers,” said Reeder, of Napa. She has two, Peterson responds — one for TV at 6100 Hollywood Blvd.; one for movies, a few blocks away at 6436 Hollywood Blvd.
As he moves on to cowboy movie sidekick Al St. John’s star, Peterson jokes that when foreign tourists ask him where they can “find a star mop,” he points them toward Home Depot. At actor Don Ameche’s, he pauses his polishing long enough to turn serious about his town.
“I’m cautiously optimistic about Hollywood’s future. The economy has slowed things down; they need to rejuvenate tourism here,” he says. “We could use more accommodations for tourists — some low- and moderate-priced places to stay. We have the high-end places. There’s enormous potential for affordable places to stay. It would benefit every business in town.”
Peterson said he does not plan to leave his East Hollywood apartment, where he lives alone, for a seven-hour festival Sunday that will commemorate the Walk of Fame’s 50th anniversary. Along with free admission to the Capitol Records building and several theaters, a star honoring musician Louis Prima will be unveiled at 11:30 a.m. at 1615 Vine St.
He’ll also skip the dedication of actor Mark Wahlberg’s star on Thursday at 6259 Hollywood Blvd.
“I’ll be working then,” Peterson explained.
He will become intimately familiar with the two new stars soon enough.